Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 29
July 19-25, 2001
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Who Did It?

Like a small gray coffee pot
sits the squirrel.
“The Gray Squirrel”:
- Humbert Wolfe, 1885-1940.

Tis said everyone loves a mystery, but is it so? Me, I’d rather have my sunflower and pepper plants. That’s getting to the heart of things up here in North County on the shores of Stoney Creek.

Here it is mid-season for growing of the flowers and veggies in the Burton garden on the east lawn. Until yesterday, I thought things were progressing nicely with the flowers and plants, though the tomatoes and peppers lag behind schedule.

Long ago, I learned that one can’t have it both ways, can’t have both trees and vegetables, not if the ranch is confined to three small lots. Tomatoes and peppers need sunshine, much of it. Trees create a parasol, the ultimate sun block.

But being a stubborn Vermont Yankee, I insist on both. The trees oblige, but the veggies don’t. Now don’t smugly remind me that tomatoes are technically fruit, which I know; my own roots are from the country, and country people consider edibles from the garden as vegetables.

Country logic has it that fruit grows on bushes and trees. Vegetables are the products of plants and vines other than the grape - regardless of what followers of Luther Burbank and his ilk tell us. But we’re getting away from the subject at hand. The mystery. And the squirrel. A real who-done-it.

Facts of the Case
I ask you sleuths out there among Bay Weekly readers: Is the rather light gray squirrel that sits like a coffee pot in the garden the culprit? I’ve not any solid evidence, but here are the clues.

Several days ago, I purchased three sunflower plants, each about 18 inches tall. I hoped the color of their flowers might help attract hummingbirds to their special feeder at the south end of the garden. For some curious reason, hummers are absent from the profusion of birds that visit the east lawn’s 22 feeders, most of which are refilled daily in summer.

With the sky-high black walnut, two catalpa trees, a tall offspring from a Wye oak acorn, a towering wild cherry, other oaks, a pine, a dogwood and few maples among still other trees nearby, there’s not much sun to be seen in the yard. Thus we don’t have much in the way of colorful flowers to attract hummingbirds.

But we try, and several flowers bloom from hanging pots high enough that the house doesn’t block the sun to the south and west for several hours a day. Sunflowers want sun, I know, but I figured if they had enough of a start, they too would rise high enough beyond the shadow of the roof to capture sufficient rays to grow, if not really prosper. Anything for color, the bright color hummingbirds like.

So, with tender care, I transplanted the three sunflowers in the garden of mostly flowers with several tomato plants and peppers mixed in. An odd combination, I know, but to me a glistening red tomato or a bright green pepper is as beautiful as a marigold. And tastes better.

And being a practical Yankee, I also figured by late summer or fall, the sunflowers - if they didn’t help attract hummingbirds via their bright yellow - would at least mature sufficiently to provide seeds as snacks for both birds and squirrels.

The new sunflower plants, well watered, took hold immediately, adding much color to the garden. The gray squirrel that sat like a coffee pot didn’t. I wondered why it wasn’t with the other bushytails feeding on the kernels of dried corn on the cob, whole and cracked kernels and sunflower seeds in feeders under the catalpa tree.
Garden Capers

Squirrels don’t spend much time in the garden other than when I’m seated in the wooden glider to read the morning paper with a container of peanuts within reach. It’s great sport (certainly more fun than digesting the dismal news of late), flipping a peanut several feet away onto the cement patio and watching to see which will get to it first, a bluejay perched in the wild cherry or a squirrel lurking in the garden.

Sometimes, they face off, and I can detect no pattern to indicate which is dominant. The squirrel is more aggressive, but the jay is faster as it darts from a bough. A few times they’ve literally brushed against each other.

When this happens, both flee, and the peanut is left behind. But not for long. Another jay - I swear they can hear a peanut plink on the cement from 50 yards - or squirrel, who is also familiar with the plink, will dash from cover to snatch the bounty.

Meanwhile, a brazen catbird usually watches from its perch on the grape-jelly feeder only three feet from me. It has no interest in peanuts, but being a curious creature probably wonders what all the fuss is about for a dry peanut when there’s all that sweet jelly around.

Another observer is 2-E, my new white cat perched on my lap, where she stays put when only six feet away there’s the contest for the peanut. Her tail wags vigorously, but she’s trained to curb her enthusiasm - even when Shortie appears.

Shortie is a squirrel with only a stub of a tail who comes right to me, taps my leg to let me know he’s around, then takes a peanut from my hand. He’s not the least intimidated by 2-E watching from only a foot or two above.

We’ll have more on 2-E and Shortie later this summer, but the pressing question now involves the new sunflowers.

The Culprit Strikes
All three were in fine shape this morning shortly after dawn when I watered them. As I later read the paper, the coffee-pot squirrel hung around but wasn’t interested in challenging jays for peanuts.

I went indoors for a while, and when my friend Al Freedman stopped by, I took him to the garden to show off my sunflowers. There were but two. The flower of the third was on the ground, as was a six-inch piece of stalk. The plant was now only about 10 inches high.

When I returned to the garden in mid-afternoon, a second plant was only about 10 inches high. A long piece was laid flat on the ground, and the bright yellow petals were askew on the soil.

Not far away I saw a rabbit in the grass munching on clover. The coffee-pot squirrel was nowhere to be seen. To be seen was only one intact sunflower plant. One of the original three at nearly two bucks a clip.

To me, it doesn’t seem the budding seeds in the sunflowers are big enough to entice a squirrel, not when there’s a spread of mature black seeds and corn nearby. Last week, a jalapeno pepper faced an even worse fate. It was uprooted, lay withering on the ground, roots exposed. The plant’s only small pepper was cut loose and lay nearby. Replanting and watering efforts failed, and the plant died.

Who Did It?
The two mutilated sunflowers have been watered well in hopes they will grow new heads. They are now surrounded by circular wire mesh barriers, which should deter rabbits. They don’t climb. I tend to accuse a rabbit.

But no fence will protect anything from a squirrel. So perhaps a solution to the mystery can come about by learning whether or not the plants are struck again. If they aren’t, the evidence points to bunnies; if they are, the coffee-pot squirrel is the prime suspect.

Or can it be there is some other winged or ground creature that either likes or dislikes jalapeno peppers and sunflowers? This mystery ranks above the Chandra Levy case for suspense at the Burton household up here in North County.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly

Mystery on the Banks of Stoney Creek